MILWAUKEE – The incoming college freshman vowed that she would go on to a master's degree and then a doctorate.
"I'm going to be called Dr. Marijuana Pepsi!" she declared.
Well, she did all that, despite and maybe because of the druggie sugary name she was given at birth 46 years ago and has embraced proudly ever since.
I first wrote about this remarkable woman 10 years ago after she earned her master's in higher education administration and was teaching in Wisconsin, where she grew up. The article went viral and Marijuana still has strangers saying to her, "I've heard of you!"
Last month, after eight years of studying and commuting, she earned a Ph.D. in higher education leadership from Cardinal Stritch University. So it seemed like a good time to catch up with Dr. Marijuana, which she admits sounds a bit like a weed dispensary.
Her last name, originally Jackson and later Sawyer, is now Vandyck. She married Fredrick Vandyck in 2017 and they live on a 3-acre hobby farm with pigs and chickens and such in Illinois.
Fredrick, whom she met through online dating, owns a welding business. Marijuana has a son, 16-year-old Isaac, who is smart and tall like his mom and likes basketball. Fredrick has three children – TJ, Heaven and Donovan. Heaven has a baby, Egypt, which makes Marijuana a grandmother.
While much of the country has been busy legalizing lower-case marijuana, the woman born into the name has built a successful life. She works full time at Beloit College as director of the program that serves students who are first-generation enrollees, come from low-income families or have learning or physical disabilities.
She also owns Action as Empowerment, a performance-coaching business that runs retreats and workshops for people looking to change their lives. And she's a real estate agent.
Not bad for a woman who left her unstable home at 15 and has spent her life proving herself to a world that wrinkled its brow every time it heard her name.
"People make such a big deal out of it, I couldn't get away from it," she said.
Her mother, Maggie (Brandy) Johnson, who still lives in Wisconsin, picked out her name and proclaimed that it would take her around the world. Her sisters, one older and one younger, got relatively common names, Kimberly and Robin.
Teachers, classmates, bosses and other people in Marijuana's life pushed back against her name and teased her. Some suggested she go to court and change it. Some flat out refused to call her that or insisted on Mary, which she rejected.
As much as people blamed and judged her mother for the name, Marijuana credits her mom with making her the strong, balanced, entrepreneurial woman she is today. Her father, Aaron Jackson, lives with his wife in Chicago and is a devout Jehovah's Witness.
Marijuana is printed right there on her driver's license. Her mail comes addressed that way. Sometimes, when she's in a hurry, she uses the initials MP when she calls or encounters someone. That's just to avoid the 15 minutes of inevitable questions about her name. She has used MP in the real-estate business so that stoners don't steal her signs.
But mostly, she embraces the name as proof that you can overcome any obstacle in life and achieve your dreams. People may hear the name and picture someone spaced out on the couch, but they couldn't be more wrong.
It's fitting that an African American woman who has gone through life as Marijuana Pepsi chose as her dissertation topic: "Black names in white classrooms: Teacher behaviors and student perceptions."
She interviewed black students at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she earned her bachelor's degree, about the effect of their distinctly black names on their treatment by teachers and on their academic achievement. The young people were eager to speak on the topic.
Many of the students reported an experience that Marijuana knew all too well: The teacher would stop on their names while taking attendance and begin quizzing them about it in front of everyone.
"I'm sorry," Marijuana replied to a professor who did that to her at Whitewater. "You didn't ask anyone else that. Why are you asking me? My name is Marijuana, thank you."
Marijuana has never met anyone else with that name, but she would like to. Sometimes, she speaks to young people who think it would be cool to name their own child Marijuana someday. She advises against it.
Marijuana producers try to friend her on LinkedIn.
As I reported in the first article, Marijuana has never smoked or vaped or ingested her namesake drug. Not once. Here's what she said when I asked for her view on legalization:
"My main concern are the individuals serving time for marijuana-related offenses. I would like to see all their sentences overturned. These people were locked up for making money from the sale of marijuana, and now that the government has figured out ways to make the money themselves, it is 'legal' and, further, encouraged."
She doesn't drink either, and when anyone urges her to try alcohol as a way to relax, she says, "I feel great. I party with drunk people; you can't tell us apart." She also doesn't drink Pepsi or other soda except for an occasional fruity soft drink in an ice cream float.
Marijuana hopes to write a book that expands on the theme of her dissertation. And she may seek out a professorship.
For years, she has been putting aside money every month for the Marijuana Pepsi Scholarship, which starting this fall will give $500 each year to a deserving first-generation African American student enrolled at UW-Whitewater. It's a way of giving back for Marijuana, who received a $12,000 scholarship from Wisconsin Power & Light Co. to attend Whitewater right out of high school in 1990. No teacher or counselor in high school had ever suggested college to her, and she had to put on a late push to raise her grades enough to qualify.
Now, when she goes into classrooms, she introduces herself as Dr. Marijuana Pepsi. That makes it easy to grab the kids' attention and share her message.
"Regardless of what they do, say or what they're trying to put in place, you still have to move forward and succeed," she tells them. "That's my big thing. Don't use that as an excuse. Use that as a steppingstone to keep on going. Leave those people behind and then you reach back. Each one reach one. Reach back and pull somebody else up."
You can reach Marijuana through her website ActionAsEmpowerment.com.
Follow Jim Stingl on Twitter @columnboy.
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